Four Island community leaders gathered with moderator Shelley Christiansen at the MVTV studios last Tuesday, Feb. 14, to discuss their experiences as African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. The panel conversation, “Who We Are Today: The 21st Century African-American Experience on the Vineyard,” was sponsored by The MV Times in honor of Black History Month.
Here’s the conversation:
Panelists included Ewell Hopkins, a current member of the Oak Bluffs planning board, who has served on several nonprofit boards on the Island. He and his wife Kimberly have three children who were all raised on the Vineyard.
Dr. Lorna Andrade has dedicated her life to the field of health education and services. She holds a doctorate, a bachelor’s degree in nursing education, and two master’s degrees. Dr. Andrade was the founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Healthcare Education Collaborative.
Jakki Hunt was the first female member and the first black president of the Vineyard NAACP chapter. She is a retired teacher educator.
Vera Shorter became the IRS’s first African-American equal employment opportunity officer. She moved to the Island in 1976 when her husband, Rufus, was hired as Martha’s Vineyard’s superintendent of schools. Ms. Shorter was active in the civil rights movement in New York, joined the local NAACP chapter, and served at other Island organizations such as the Nathan Mayhew Seminars and the Affirmative Action Advisory Committee to the Vineyard schools.
Shelley Christiansen, a broker with Coldwell Banker Landmarks Real Estate, freelance writer and Red Cross volunteer, moderated the conversation. Shelley is also known for her Martha’s Vineyard commentaries on WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR Station.
Panelists discussed a variety of issues, including how the Island is perceived by the black vacationers versus the year round black community.
“You come and get off the boat and take a deep breath and it becomes a solitude,” Ms Andrade said of summer visitors of color. “It’s a whole different world to you.”
Ewell Hopkins, who has raised his family on the Island, had a broader perspective: “Everything that’s happening in the greater world is happening right here on Martha’s Vineyard … all the social challenges we were aware of in Boston were alive and well here and needed to be addressed. There are many things to be encouraged by and many things to be discouraged by.”
All the panelists were involved in the NAACP and they discussed how the organization had evolved over the years. “When I joined NAACP in 1969, 85% of the membership was white,” said Ms. Hunt. “Today I think we’re perceived as troublemakers rather than ‘ammeliorators,’ so when you’re viewed that way there’s a barrier there.”
Looking back at the “Obama years” on the Island, generally, all the panelists had favorable memories. “I’m particularly glad he acted normally, like anybody else,” said Ms. Shorter. “When you get to be important everybody expects something else from you but he acted like a human being. I love human beings.”
But as Ms Andrade said, it wasn’t all roses:
“I think it was wonderful that he was here and had the freedom he had when he visited … on the other hand I have to say there were people here who were not so happy. I know that people don’t want to hear it but there are a number of racist people here.”
All in all, the discussion was lively, animated but at all times civil, as in the exchange between Mr. Hopkins, an enthusiastic charter school advocate, and Ms. Hunt, a proponent of public school education. The two disagreed, but without the acrimony so in evidence lately on the national stage.
“There’s so much to discuss,” said Mr. Hopkins, “and only through open dialogue can the truth prevail.”
“Who We Are Today: The 21st Century African-American Experience on the Vineyard,”
was produced at MVTV, with help from Lynn Christoffers. It will be aired on MVTV on Thursday Feb. 23 at 6:30 pm.